Through music, finding peace in the midst of chaos

October 29, 2016

The world-famous mezzosoprano Joyce DiDonato was in the middle of researching music for her next album when the terrorist attacks took place in Paris on November 13 last year.

She had been contemplating the idea “Does art matter?” – but realised in the aftermath of the massacre that the question which would not leave her was: “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?”

She says: “How could I devote immense, intensive personal and professional resources to this project and dare to bring it to 20 cities, when the music sitting in front of me felt – apologies to these fine composers – like a gimmick while the world around me continued to surge out of control?”

But then as though by fate compositions seemed to find their own serendipitous path into her hands. Handel’s haunting Lascia ch’io pianga, Dido’s Lament by Purcell.

She also picked out – for the album which she named In War & PeacePrendi quel ferro, o barbaro! (from Leo’s Andromaca) and Illustratevi, o cieli (from Monteverdi’s Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria).

Even so, the music could not simply be presented as a fait accompli. Miss DiDonato wanted to engage and challenge listeners. Our own experiences, she says, need to be an active choice – “one that isn’t arbitrary, but is informed by the darkness”.

Her words echo the dictum of Eleanor Roosevelt. “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves,” the First Lady said. “The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”

I believe that the spirit of music can help us make good choices. When we hear or make music, it affects us in individual and communal ways, making it a natural agent of connection and change. A shared moment of listening is the ideal time to take stock, to find a moment of peace, to make a decision – possibly shared – towards positive behaviour.

Miss DiDonato explored this idea further by approaching people from all walks of life to reveal where they found peace. A homeless woman wrote: “I imagine a small globe of light growing larger from my centre until I am surrounded by light and peace.” A young Indian boy who attends a school for children with leprosy replied: “When surrounded by chaos, I see people in need and then I find myself among the most fortunate, blessed people.”

For me, that moment comes through deep meditation and reflection. For Miss DiDonato, she admits, the music of Purcell and its simplicity brings calm. Handel, she says, soothes with his total serenity of harmony. Both offer her a compass towards internal peace in their purity.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation